When I was young, I spent a lot of time at community centers.
My parents were community people, and both my mom and dad were committed to various community initiatives. Three or four times a week we would be at a community event. I didn’t mind—most of them had basketball courts so whenever I finished whatever task I had to take care of I would take off to the courts.
My parents’ commitment to the community had a lasting impact on everyone. Still today, when I’m participating in community activities in my old neighborhood, I mention my parents and people remember the work they did. That’s a helluva legacy.
My parents’ community work also had a lasting impact on my siblings and me—not just for the events themselves, but because of the important life lessons we picked up along the way. I find myself drawing on many of these life lessons now as I navigate the unprecedented times we’re currently living in.
There is one event in particular that I’ll always remember. It was one day before an event, and my mom, dad, siblings and I were setting things up in the community center. I was rushing to get things done so I could head to the courts when all of a sudden my dad burst out the front door of the center and took off running down the street.
By the time we reached the front door of the center to see where he went, my dad was out of sight. After about ten minutes, we saw him walking back toward the center with a much younger man, maybe several years older than me.
My dad was holding a radio. It was the radio we used in my parents’ station wagon because the car’s radio was broken.
My dad stood talking to the man for 20 minutes or so. When he finally came back in, he explained that the guy had taken his radio off the front seat. My dad saw him from the front window of the center and took off after him.
What amazed me was the composure my dad showed. He’s a big man at 6’6″ and from what I remember, the thief was under six feet tall, so my dad could have easily pounded on the guy if he wanted to. But instead, he reacted intentionally, not habitually or impulsively. He stopped to think about what the most productive reaction would be and was inquisitive and kind. He took time to talk to the guy and understand why he’d done what he did.
Mind you, my dad was not a peace-and-love kind of guy, never holding anyone to task. He got angry, just like everyone else in the world. Still, on that particular day he spoke to the guy. He explained the work we were doing in the community, and said that instead of stealing he should come to the center for whatever he needed.
That day, I learned that real strength was not physically overpowering someone, but maintaining composure and showing kindness, even when someone is showing you something else.
I feel like the example my dad showed me that day can go a long way in our current climate.
I see people doing it—leading with kindness, empathy, and inquisitiveness when their impulse or habits might be nagging them to act the opposite. Yet we also see the flipside—the stories on the news where people are clearly so caught up in their own opinions and agendas that there’s not one hint of understanding taking place.
Regardless, reacting intentionally is definitely one of those things we need to continually monitor in ourselves—to continually choose how we want to react to the situations and challenges we face.
The effort is so worth it, and the first step toward building that intentionality can actually be quite easy.
It simply starts with being open and curious. Just like my dad, who was open and curious enough about the radio thief to talk with him, be kind to him, and invite him to use the community center when he needed to, we all can be more open and curious about the issues, opinions, and circumstances in our world today.
Instead of reacting habitually or impulsively, claiming our opinion and sticking to it no matter what, we can talk with people who have different opinions and simply say, “I’m curious. What makes you feel the way you do?”
We can do this with big things such as political and social issues, or little things like food or music choices. Instead of just writing off someone’s feelings, choices, or opinions because they’re not like ours, we can be curious and seek to learn and understand them.
Hopefully, in doing so they’ll take the same approach with us—or at least let it be the catalyst to being more open in the future.
The truth is, we’re never going to have a world that’s more open and understanding if we each don’t try to be more open and understanding ourselves. Thanks to my dad, I had a perfect example as a kid of what that looked like, and it’s an example I am still using and practicing to this day.
I’m so grateful for that example, and the greatest way I can pay it forward is to be a similar example for someone else.
Dedicated to William Abdur-Rahim, September 5, 1949 — July 21, 2020.